On being … essential

By Ingrid Sapona

I know many of us are in mental overload related to COVID-19 and the last thing you want to read is more commentary related to it. But honestly, there’s little else on my mind, so I’m sorry to say I can’t not write about it. I will, however, do my best to keep this – and any future COVID-related columns, on the shorter side.

One of the first things Ontario did to stem the virus’ spread was put restrictions on non-essential services and businesses. The initial list of things considered essential was interesting and the cause of much conversation. (For example, should cannabis shops, liquor stores, and construction sites remain open?) After about a week the list was modified a bit and since then, most discussions moved on to what each of us should be doing to help flatten the curve.

But, I’ve still been thinking about the essential services. More particularly, I’ve been thinking about the brave people who are performing all the services we now realize are essential to our daily lives. No one ever doubted the essential – indeed, heroic – work performed by medical professionals. That said, until now, I never really thought about the range of work involved in medically managing a health crisis – everything from testing for the virus to providing an array of medical care. As well, I never focused on the critical role personal care workers play in attending to the health and wellbeing of many, particularly the aged. 

I’ve been lucky, so far, because I’ve not needed any medical services during this crisis. But, I’ve certainly benefited from the services of numerous other essential service providers. As a result, I’ve reflected on their work and the precariousness of their position. I’m talking about the countless service providers who do things day in, day out that enable each of us to stay safe. All the people involved in providing groceries, for example, from those who grow or manufacture our food, to those who get it to markets and stores, to those who stock it, and the cashiers. As well, all the people who deliver things – from mail, to packages, to food. And the transportation workers and other drivers. And all the folks who clean and disinfect places so that others can be safe.

Many of those jobs that we all recognize as being essential now were often previously taken for granted and were marginalized by society. The work often pays minimum wage (which doesn’t even come close to a “living wage”) and usually offers no, or minimal, benefits or security. Such workers are often thought of simply as unskilled labour, as though they chose such work over some position that requires special training or education. Such assumptions ignore the role opportunity and circumstance often play in the ability to train for, or learn skills necessary for, other work.

While society may have assigned a pecking order (overtly or covertly) to different types of work, the virus is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It doesn’t discriminate between the levels of education, skill, or income of those doing essential work. So, having recognized that certain work is essential to all of our well being, shouldn’t we make sure all essential workers are treated with dignity and remunerated fairly? To do this, we must ensure their safety now by recognizing their need for – and right to – personal protective equipment that’s appropriate to the conditions of their work and to their chance of exposure. And we must recognize the value their work contributes to the functioning of society each and every day – not just during times of crisis – by ensuring their wages and benefits provide them with economic security.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what life will be like when this crisis is behind us. Some things will change and some things will go back to the way they were, no doubt. One thing I hope doesn’t change is appreciation of how much we rely on each other and how essential it is to value everyone’s service and contribution.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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